“I feel allergic to the show of taking sides. I want to be on the side of a just peace.”

Thirteen ways of looking at a war zone: Poetry as vital pause

6 minute read
Near the US Capitol, a crowd, many wearing yarmulkes & tallits, hold a giant Torah-style scroll saying Rabbis for Ceasefire.
Activists from Rabbis for Ceasefire pose in DC near the US Capitol after a morning prayer service on November 13, 2023. (Photo by Anndee Hochman.)


The Day It Started, I was at an artists’ retreat in the Hudson Valley: three Black queer dancers from LA; a “vocal chameleon” from Las Vegas; a fiber artist who lives in Columbia, South Carolina; two Brooklyn theater-makers developing a piece called Room to Cry.

The news was an acid twist in the gut: Hamas. Attack. Kill. Kidnap. Peace activists and kibbutzniks, young people dancing at a techno music festival advertised as "the essence of unity and love.” Adults and teens and old people and toddlers and babies abducted, orphaned, murdered on an ordinary Saturday, while I sat 5,700 miles away, making things with words.


Israel fired back. Again, again, again, with a pledge to vanquish Hamas, whatever that meant. Airstrikes. Targets. Tunnels. Refugees. Adults and teens and old people and toddlers and babies fleeing their homes in terror. Bodies in the street. Houses caved to rubble.


How to talk about this with the thoughtful, soulful artists I’d met just five days earlier?


The Day Before It Started, the lunchtime conversation somehow wound to the fact that I am Jewish—at that moment, the only Jew at our table.

“I love Jewish culture!” exclaimed a Black woman, smiling my way.

That morning, she and I had geeked out on e.e. cummings over breakfast, swapping lines we knew by heart, building to a giddy crescendo: “(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud/and the sky of the sky of a tree called life…)”

Now my tongue lay thickly silent in my mouth. Thought experiment: I, a white woman, blurt to my brand-new, brown-skinned friend, “I love Black culture!” Who is cringing now?

Which parts? I wanted to ask. Bagels? Klezmer? Survival in the diaspora? Ferocious tribalism? A brand of fatalistic humor? Victimhood? Vengeance?

“Cool,” I said.


We were friends before we had memory: babies born two months apart in our parents’ starter apartments in Fairmount, before each family decamped for the suburbs and their “better” schools. We shared Spaghetti-Os (at my house) and Lucky Charms (at hers), wore matching pinafores we’d sewn ourselves and tried, on countless sleepovers, to stay awake past midnight by dozing in 10-minute shifts.

Now she lives in a suburb of Tel Aviv. When I call, two weeks into the war, her voice shakes: “I can’t even breathe.” She tells me of the eerily deserted streets, the siren’s curdling shriek.

For months, my friend and her family have been among those protesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to wrest control of the country’s Supreme Court. Now they hunker in their safe room, a concrete-girded closet.

I murmur something about the deaths, so many deaths, in Gaza. “Oh, the Palestinians, I know, I know,” she says. “But this time, I really think we just have to go in and get Hamas. Israel can’t live like this.”


It started when Hamas militants bulldozed through a high-tech security fence into southern Israel to rampage towns and kibbutzim, burning homes, viciously raping girls and women, murdering whole families, taking 240 people hostage.

No, it started with the second intifada. Or maybe the first.

It really started on the day in 1948 that Israelis celebrate as independence—a day Palestinians call nakba, meaning “catastrophe.”

Or how about millennia ago, when Abraham banished Hagar, an Egyptian, and their son, Ishmael—believed by Jews and Muslims to be the father of the Arab people—to the wilderness?

In the Torah, the most raw and painful wounds are inflicted by those closest to us.


At a family dinner nearly three weeks into the war, a cousin says it feels like the Holocaust happening all over again.

I say, “You know, if you put 25 Palestinian five-year-olds and 25 Israeli five-year-olds in a room together, you wouldn’t be able to tell who’s who.”

Always, there is a story underneath: I’m scared. Ashamed. I’m angry. I’m so sad.


At the Reconstructionist synagogue where I’ve belonged for 30 years, we add a phrase to the end of the mourners’ prayer: “V’al kol Israel, v’al kol Ishmael, v’al kol yoshvey teyvel.” May there be peace for all the people of Israel, and those of Ishmael, and for all who dwell on earth. Just words, sure, but words that insist we remember people other than ourselves.

Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet, has been my friend for those same 30 years. Because of her, I picture Palestine as villages and faces, people who laugh and yearn and mourn. In our most recent e-mails, Naomi and I sometimes sigh, “oh, cousin.” Or, “dear sister.” Ally. Friend.


I attend an outdoor prayer service, just blocks from the gleam of the US Capitol, organized by the national group Rabbis for Ceasefire. One woman sobs audibly through the mourners’ prayer, trembling against her companion. Why are we all not joining her in a shredded, attenuated keen of grief?


For days, my inbox spills with statements—universities, faith groups, and non-profits—on the growing conflict. Some are unequivocally pro-Israel. Some acknowledge all lives lost. Some point out that Palestinians have lived under an Israeli chokehold for decades and that Netanyahu’s government, careening ever further to the right, is no partner for peace. I feel allergic to the show of taking sides. I want to be on the side of a just peace.

I parse my words, acutely sensitive to audience: if I say I am pro-Palestine (meaning Palestinians should live in safety and self-governance, meaning their lives matter as much as my own) will my listeners hear naivete, or worse, “self-hating Jew”? If I want us to please just pause to grieve the 1,200 Israelis murdered on October 7, does that signal denial of the region’s power inequities, indifference to the outsized, unjustifiable ruin of Gaza?


Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declares: “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” On a sidewalk, I see stenciled: “Israeli savages bomb Christian hospital in Gaza.” I think these words—animals, savages—just underscore a righteous distance: see, we are not that.

It’s easy for me to empathize with sufferers on both sides; what’s hard is to identify with the aggressors. How does a person numb his soul sufficiently to mutilate a woman before raping her? How does a soldier not think of his own parents as he drops the bomb that flattens a village? How do we contend, as humans, with the viciousness in us?


Gaza is roughly twice the size of Washington, DC. Before October 7, it was home to 2.2 million people. More than 85 percent have fled their homes. The death toll in Gaza has topped 20,000. The remaining Israeli captives have been held for 57 days. By the time you read this, those numbers will be obsolete.


Statements bluster and declare. Art trawls uncertainty and paradox; it trafficks in multiple, simultaneous, overlapping points of view.

At the retreat, six days after It Started (Again), I invited everyone to light Shabbat candles with me. Two votives flickered on the communal table. I read Naomi’s poem, Jerusalem.

There’s a place in my brain/where hate won’t grow.

By the time I reached that line, I was in tears. So was the fiber artist from South Carolina, and the vocalist from Las Vegas, and the bilingual dancer who has relatives in both Israel and Gaza. Black, white, Jewish, Catholic, folks with roots in Mexico, Croatia, New Zealand, Burkina Faso.

“It’s late,” I read, “but everything comes next.”

And then we were silent for a while. That’s how poems work. They don’t fix anything. But in the spaces between words, after the noise, we have to pause, and listen.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation